AUGUSTA, Maine — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration office in Augusta on Thursday confirmed that the federal agency is investigating the Sept. 9 death of James Laurita, who was crushed by one of his elephants after he fell and hit his head on the concrete walkway around the animals’ pen.
Though no more details were available from OSHA on Thursday about the timeline or possible outcome of the investigation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals shared with the Bangor Daily News a letter and complaint it had sent to the director of the Augusta-area OSHA office.
“PETA urges you to hold Hope Elephants responsible for exposing Dr. Laurita to the recognized life-threatening hazards associated with ‘free-contact’ elephant management, in which there are no barriers between humans and animals capable of killing them easily, in apparent violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general-duty clause,” the letter stated.
That clause states that each employer shall furnish to its employees work, and a place of work, that are free from hazards recognized as likely to cause death or serious injury.
Multiple efforts Thursday to speak with a board member of Hope Elephants or one of Laurita’s family members about the investigation were unsuccessful.
Laurita, 56, was a beloved midcoast-area veterinarian who had worked for the midwestern Carson & Barnes circus as a young man. During that stint, he became an elephant handler and had grown to love the elephants in the herd, especially an Asian elephant named Rosie. A few years ago, Laurita had a dream to bring Rosie and another retired circus elephant to live on his property in Maine, where they would benefit from his attention, care and willingness to develop new therapeutic techniques for geriatric elephants. In 2011, Hope Elephants was formed, with Laurita and his brother, Tom Laurita, the co-founders.
In 2012, Rosie and Opal, both Asian elephants in their 40s, came to Maine from their home at the Endangered Ark Foundation in Hugo, Oklahoma, which continued to own them. “Jim’s girls” were a big hit among local children and many other folks, and 17,000 people came to Hope last year to see them.
“Rosie and Opal are part of everyone’s family in midcoast Maine,” Hope Town Administrator Jon Duke said last week. “Hope Elephants has been a huge part of our community since it started.”
Last Tuesday morning, James Laurita had been working alone inside the pen with the elephants when he fell, police said. Rosie came over to him and accidentally crushed him, while she likely was trying to help him, Tom Laurita said recently on the Facebook page for Hope Elephants. Police and the Maine medical examiner’s office have deemed his death accidental, and Rosie and Opal left Maine over the weekend to return to the Endangered Ark Foundation.
According to the appendix PETA sent to OSHA, working with elephants is one of the statistically most dangerous jobs in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said in a 1997 report on dangerous jobs that elephant trainers have a fatality rate that is 68 times greater than for a typical worker, though very few people are employed this way.
One approach that some zoos and sanctuaries take to reduce risk is to limit human contact with elephants, Ed Stewart of the Performing Animals Welfare Society told the BDN last week. He said that when James Laurita was starting Hope Elephants, safety questions about the proposed facility in Maine raised red flags for PAWS. The elephants that live at the PAWS sanctuary do not come into direct contact with people but instead are limited to what Stewart termed “protected contact.” That means that there is always a steel barrier wall between elephants and people.
“Humans don’t go inside with the elephant,” he said of his facility. “Elephants are just dangerous. They’re big and intelligent, and they kill a lot of people. … If you’re in protected contact, you have to make a big mistake to get injured by an elephant.”
In contrast, many published photographs, including in the BDN, show that Laurita regularly handled Rosie and Opal in direct contact.
“The conditions that directly led to his death were not a one-time occurrence,” Amanda Schwoerke, counsel for PETA, said in the appendix the animal rights organization sent to OSHA.
However, the complaints that PETA has filed in Maine on behalf of the state’s animals in the past often have seemed to generate more publicity than policy change. For example, last fall, Knox County District Attorney Jeff Rushlau declined to pursue animal cruelty charges in connection with lobster processing at Linda Bean’s Rockland plant. PETA had filed a complaint asking that Bean be investigated because of the way her plant processed lobsters.